“I grew up in Rastafari. My parents are Rasta and they always speak of Africa (afrocentric) and remind us of our identity,” shares Jamaican artiste Kelissa McDonald. She talks to Cynthia Mukanzi about her musical journey
You went to music school at a young age. Is that what propelled your culmination to the artiste you are today?
It was definitely a big influence on my career, but I also grew up around music. My parents are musicians. I would watch them in studio, at rehearsals and shows. They always took my siblings and I to their shows. They introduced me to music and gave me the space to explore my own love for it. So, I was already exposed to music way before school. It was not until my teenage years that I started writing and recording.
When did you professionally get into recording?
When I was 13 or 14 years, and it became my official career path when I left college. I was doing music as a hobby up until that point. I was still performing and doing shows, but when I left college, I knew it was something I wanted to do full time.
You got a scholarship at Whittier College in LA to study music and tailored your own curriculum to suit your interests. Tell us more.
Whittier College is a liberal arts college with a programme that allows students to create their own curriculum. I realised they didn’t have an African studies programme, which I wanted, so it was an opportunity to find a way to create it based on what they had.
I had studied music (drumming, playing the xylophone and dance) and other forms of arts with an African touch in Ghana for a semester before this. And so, I incorporated what I had learned in Ghana and my stay in Tanzania into my curriculum. I was living in Tanzania prior to my move to LA.
Is that why you formed Black Arts and Cultural Dance Group?
Yeah. My roommate at the time was Ethiopian and so we came together to start the group. It was a way for us to celebrate our African culture and bring our culture to the campus. It was a chance for me to share my music, poetry and art.
Did the dance group sufficiently serve its purpose?
It did. In many ways it was for personal reasons and so it helped us to transition through the four years at school and hold onto our culture. It created awareness and opened people to a side of Africa they had never been exposed to.
How was it like coming back home from LA to Jamaica?
It was good. Before going to college in LA, I was in Tanzania. I had left home when I was 16 and returned when I was 22 — it was great to reconnect, create music, develop as an artiste and perform there. It taught me a lot. It’s my home and so I’m always happy to be there.
As someone who has lived in different countries, would you say that sort of intercultural exposure has impacted your music?
It definitely has in a positive way. I always tell people I don’t strictly do reggae music. Reggae music is the roots of what I do and who I am, but because of living in different places, my music has been influenced by a lot of different sounds and genres.
Did you start dancing at the same time you got into music?
I was actually a dancer before I was a musician. Dancing was my first experience with music. I was able to interpret sound into movement. Music came later as an extra way for me to express myself.
Do you actively combine both?
Not lately, but I would love to do that more. My recent music video release, Spellbound, which is part of the project I released last year of the same name, is the first music video that has a dance routine. I, however, dance more on stage.
Plans to work with local artistes?
Not officially, but I began working with a few people such as Blinky Bill, H_art The Band and ZJ Heno. I’m anticipating to see what comes from that and definitely hope to have something recorded. Blinky Bill has a different taste and approach to music. I personally like to step outside the banks and experiment with such creative minds.
How many albums do you have?
So far, I have released Spellbound and before that, I had an extended play (EP). I will be releasing a mixtape called Colour of Love and later in the year, my sophomore album called Kilimanjaro.
You’ve been to about six African countries working on a documentary focusing on the art scene industry. Could you talk to us a bit more on this.
The main objective of this project is to show Africa in a way that people, mostly the West don’t get to see or depict. All you see on TV is disease and disasters, yet Africa is a place of life, creativity and great unsung political philosophies. I love its vastness of history, culture, arts and learning. Not many get to experience it. I’m glad to be part of it.